Open Government and Technology: Groundhog Day

I came across a recent paper by Jan van Dijk that looks at the claims and achievements of digital democracy in the last 25 years. Here’s the abstract of  “Digital Democracy: Vision and Reality” [PDF] (highlights are mine):

Digital media have made a strong appeal to people wanting to improve democracy right from the start. Four waves of utopian visions of the last 25 years are described. The concept of digital democracy is defined. Subsequently, six views of both representative and direct democracy are distinguished that favor particular applications of digital media in politics and government.  The next paragraph makes an inventory of the claims and achievements of 25 years of attempts to realize digital democracy in the field of information provision, online discussion and decision-making. It appears that information provision is the best realized claim. The final part of this chapter is about eParticipation in politics and policy. It discusses both government- and citizen-centric applications. Citizen-centric applications appear to be the most successful. Generally speaking, e-participation has not been successfully incorporated in institutional politics and government.

Van Dijk’s paper adds to my list of readings on how little can be achieved by technology [PDF] in the absence of institutional change (something few seem to care about / understand).

But it also brings me to another issue that I think is not stressed enough: the current enthusiasm around technology and open government strikes me due to its lack of historical perspective. And, if history serves as any guide, advocates in the open government space would fare better in managing their (and others’) expectations about what can and cannot be achieved by technology.

Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart.

Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart.

This reminds me of a quote I read in an article from 1994 by Armand Mattelart on the “promise of redemption” of communication technologies. The author refers to a speech by then vice-president Al Gore in 1994 at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), defending the creation of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII). Al Gore’s view for democracy and information technologies couldn’t be any more enthusiastic:

The GII will not only be a metaphor for a functioning democracy, it will in fact promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision-making. And it will greatly promote the ability of nations to cooperate with each other. I see an new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create.

Nearly 20 years later, hopes similar to those of Al Gore can still resonate in blog posts, conferences and official documents.

I can’t help but think of what Mattelart called “a strange alchemy of cynicism, naïveté and amnesia”.

Local Environment and Monitoring of Public Health Service Delivery

picture by Dave Proffer on flickr


When is Community-Based Monitoring Effective? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Primary Health in Uganda 

By Martina Bjorkman and Jakob Svensson (2012)


Access to quality services has been recognized as fundamental for wellbeing and economic development. However, in Africa and other developing countries, service delivery is often poor or nonexistent. Many argue that government bureaucracies may be ill equipped and lack incentives to improve the quality of public services. In response, development practitioners have started to experiment with involving beneficiaries in monitoring public service delivery and making service providers accountable to users. How best to design such interventions, and the impact of them, have been addressed in a handful of recent randomized field experiments. The results, to date, are mixed. While Banerjee et al. (2008) and Olken (2007) report minor or no effects on learning outcomes (in a project in primary education in India) and on corruption (in a road construction project in Indonesia), Bjorkman and Svensson (2009) and Duflo et al. (2009) report large positive improvements on average in a primary health intervention in Uganda and a primary schooling intervention in Kenya, respectively. What can explain these diverging findings? And more specifically, to what extent does the local sociopolitical environment influence users ability and willingness to monitor public service providers?

Using data from Bjorkman and Svensson (2009), linked to recently assembled data on ethnic and linguistic composition at the sub-national level for Uganda (Alesina and Zhuravskaya, 2008), and income data from the Uganda National Household Survey 2005 (UNHS, 2005), we test whether social heterogeneity, in income and ethnicity, can explain why some communities managed to push for better health service delivery while others were less successful. The results suggest that income inequality and, particularly, ethnic fractionalization adversely impact collective action for improved service provision.


As policymakers in developing countries search for ways to improve health and education for the poor, it is becoming clear that more is required than just additional funds. A key obstacle to better public services looks to be the weak incentives that providers face. Schools and health clinics are not open when they should be. Teachers and health workers are frequently absent from schools and clinics, and even when there, they spend significant time not serving the intended beneficiaries. Equipment, even when working, is not used. Drugs are misused, and public funds are expropriated. In response, a growing number of experts argue that more emphasis must be placed on strengthening beneficiary control that is, strengthening providers’ accountability to citizens/clients.

While there is evidence that such an approach can have large positive effects on service provision, there is also evidence of signiÖcant variation in outcomes. Using data from a randomized experiment in Uganda, we show that social heterogeneity, and specifically ethnic fractionalization, adversely impact collective action for improved service provision. As a result, the intervention resulted in a smaller increase in the quantity of primary health care provision in heterogeneous communities.

Our results have implications for both the design and evaluation of interventions aimed at strengthening beneficiary control in public service delivery programs. On program design, interventions should be adjusted to the local sociopolitical situation. As little is known about how this is to be done, our results open up an important agenda for research: How to enhance collective action in socially heterogeneous communities. On evaluation, ideally the researchers should design the evaluation protocol so as to be able to assess the impact conditional on the sociopolitical environments.

Read full study here [PDF].

On Political Efficacy and Occupy Wall Street’s Postage Paid Protest

One of the strongest predictors of participation is what political scientists call “political efficacy”. Broadly speaking, one of the components of political efficacy refers to an individual’s perception of his/her impact through his/her political actions. In other words, all other things equal, the greater your perception that your actions are likely to have an impact, the greater your political efficacy. And the greater this sense of efficacy, the more likely you are to engage. Furthermore, political scientists often refer to the generation of a virtuous cycle in which participation leads to more participation.

A while ago, through a post on techPresident by Micah Sifry I came across this brilliant story about an alternative form of protest in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Below is an excerpt from Micah’s article that summarizes the idea put forward by Artie Moffa, a “part–time poet and SAT tutor”:

“His idea,which he described in a short YouTube video that has had more than 400,000views in just six days, steals a page from both Saul Alinsky and Abbie Hoffman.You know all those credit card solicitations banks send you all the time, he asks, sitting at his couch in a shirt and striped tie. Take the business reply envelope and stuff it with a message back to the bank, or if you’re feeling like it, add a wood shim or something firm to add to the cost of the return mail. “Every hour banks spend responding to us is an hour banks don’t spend lobbying Congress figuring out how to screw us,” he notes. “If you can’t occupy Wall Street, you can at least keep Wall Street occupied.”

The post includes an interesting and entertaining interview with Moffa. Both the story and the interview present two interesting (although anecdotal) illustrations of how political efficacy can operate.

The first one refers to the action in itself. My hunch is that the reasonable popularity of the idea is a result of the fact that it generates an immediate sense of political efficacy. Although one can question how efficient the practice may be in terms of furthering the causes of the movement, by sending back the envelope individuals know that their action will have a tangible impact: the return mail will have to be paid for by the sender of the correspondence. Making a rough – and maybe unfair – comparison, by sending back the mail with a message or a wood shim inside the envelope gives citizens a stronger – or more immediate – sense of political efficacy than signing an online petition.

The second element corresponds to the virtuous cycle, in which participation, resulting in increased political efficacy, will lead to even more participation. As Artie Moffa puts it it:

“About a month ago, I wrote a letter to the editors of The Economist, teasing them about a bad layout decision they made with the cover for their “Hunting the Rich”issue (Sep 24). I couldn’t believe they printed my letter. I guess that experience itched the bug bite. I wanted to say a little more.”

That bug bite, that made Artie want to say more, was political efficacy.

Open Government Partnership: Beyond National Executives?

Simple math: government has three branches (executive, legislative and judiciary) and roughly two levels (national and sub-national). Hence, at least in theory, there is a minimum of six institutional settings that are the object of “open government” (see table below).






As far as I know, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) has privileged its activities in only one of these spheres, that of the national executives (area 1). In this respect, it appears that one of the next challenges for the OGP is to find ways to involve the remaining areas (2, 3, 4, 5 and 6).
From an international standpoint, some might even – and reasonably so – claim that it is precisely areas 2, 4 and 5 where the strongest potential for open government actually lies, and where most innovations in the field actually happen.

As to the judiciary (3 and 6), one could easily assert that it is the branch of government in most dire need of openness, as in most countries these are literally opaque institutions.

The Benefits of Citizen Engagement: a (Brief) Review of the Evidence

Picture by neotint on flickr.

(I am working on a brief literature review on the benefits of participation, focusing on its different types of impact. Most of it (but not entirely) relates to participatory budgeting. Below are a few of the sections covered and a rough draft. Ideas and suggestions for topic coverage and literature (preferably peer-reviewed) are more than welcome.)


As shown in a cross-national analysis by Torgler & Schneider (2009), citizens are more willing to pay taxes when they perceive that their preferences are properly taken into account by public institutions. Along these lines, the existing evidence suggests the existence of a causal relationship between citizen participation processes and levels of tax compliance. For instance, studies show that Swiss cantons with higher levels of democratic participation present lower tax evasion rates, even when controlling for other factors. This effect is particularly strong when it comes to direct citizen participation in budgetary decisions, i.e. fiscal referendum (Frey & Feld 2002, Frey et al. 2004, Torgler 2005). In the Latin American context, a number of authors have observed a similar relationship with regard to participatory budgeting processes. In the municipality of Porto Alegre (BR) for instance, Schneider and Baquero (2006) show that the adoption of PB led to a substantive increase in tax revenues. In a similar vein, a comparative study of 25 municipalities in Latin America and Europe finds a significant reduction in levels of tax delinquency after the adoption of PB (Cabannes 2004: 36). In another study Zamboni (2007) compares the performance of similar Brazilian municipalities with and without PB processes: even when controlling for other factors, the study finds a significant relationship between the existence of PB and the reduction of tax evasion.

Some evidence suggests that participation may be even more effective at curbing tax evasion than traditional deterrence measures, such as fines and controls. At odds with conventional economic reasoning, the literature in the field of “tax morale” suggests that citizen participation actually comes across as a better remedy for tax evasion than commonly adopted deterrence policies (e.g. Torgler 2005, Feld & Frey 2007, Feld & Torgler 2007) .


According to a study by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on the PB process in Rio Grande do Sul state, “PB has promoted a redistributive development model while improving budgetary planning and efficiency” (Schneider & Goldfrank 2002, p. iii). From an efficiency point of view, the study observes that the PB process improved governmental capacity to allocate funds across governmental divisions (e.g. secretariats) to enact planned projects. For instance, with the implementation of PB, the rate of completion of budgeted education projects increased from an average of 62.5% to 82.5% (Schneider & Goldfrank 2002) . The implementation of PB also increased the planning capacity of the state, leading to a budget that better forecast the revenue receipts, with the government actually spending amounts systematically closer to the planned expenses (Schneider & Goldfrank 2002).

Another study on the municipality of Porto Alegre shows that prior to the implementation of the PB process, no more than two percent of the municipal budget was dedicated to investment, with most of the budget allocated to personnel expenses. Five years later, the combination of increased tax revenues and efficiency gains – engendered by the PB process – led to a tenfold increase in the percentage of investments (Baiocchi 2003). Finally, as shown by Zamboni’s (2007) quantitative study, even when controlling for other factors, municipalities that adopt PB processes are better managed and present less financial irregularities (e.g. corruption) than those without PB.

The elements highlighted above lead to another question regarding the extent to which citizen engagement leads to more targeted and evidence-based allocation of resources. The literature dealing with citizen participation primarily approaches this issue by considering the extent to which participatory processes lead to an inversion of priorities and to increased social justice. In this respect, the available evidence suggests that participatory budgeting leads to significant shifts in priorities and policies, towards expenditures that directly benefit poor sections of society (Avritzer 1999, Navarro 2001, Blore et al. 2004). In a similar vein, quantitative analysis by Baiocchi et al. (2006) finds that participatory budgeting is strongly associated with a reduction in extreme poverty and increased access to basic services. More recently, a World Bank report demonstrated that participatory budgeting bears a statistically significant impact on a number of social indicators. Amongst others, the authors of the report find that PB is positively and strongly associated with improvements in poverty rates and water services (World Bank 2008).


The relationship between participatory budgeting and increased trust and legitimacy draws from a well-established body of literature dealing with issues of citizen participation, social capital and trust in government. It is widely known that citizen engagement leads to increased levels of trust in institutions: this holds true even when controlling for other factors (Brehm & Rahn 1997, Keele 2007, Tampubolon 2010) . Indeed, in some cases, one of the strongest effects of participatory processes is precisely that of increased trust in institutions (Altschuller & Corrales 2009).

The understanding that PB reduces implementation hurdles draws both from broader literature dealing with policy implementation and from the specific experience of PB itself. In a more general perspective, the evidence from experimental settings suggests that decisions made democratically lead to better cooperative models, mitigating problems of free-riding and facilitating subsequent policy implementation (Ertan et al. 2009, Dal Bó et al. 2010). Beyond experiments in controlled environments, the case for increased participation in decision-making processes – as a means to reduce implementation drawbacks – has been made in fields as diverse as those of economic reforms (Frieden 1991), agriculture policies (Bardhan 2000) and workplace decisions (Black & Lynch 2001). For PB the evidence is by no means different: as the outcome of an inclusive decision-making process, the implementation of PB decisions has been documented as less subject to elite capture and clientelist exchanges (Wampler 2001). The literature has also demonstrated the substantive popular support enjoyed by public works and services selected through the PB process, with local communities often collaborating with supplementary personnel, financial and material resources in order to increase the resources available for the implementation of PB projects (Cabannes 2004).

Altschuller, D., Corrales, J. (2009) “The Spillover Effects of Participation in Development Projects: Evidence from Honduras and Guatemala.” Working paper, CCEUP.

Avritzer, L. (1999) “Public Deliberation at the Local Level: Participatory Budgeting in Brazil.” Paper delivered at the Experiments for Deliberative Democracy Conference, Wisconsin January, 2000

Baiocchi, G. (2003) “Radicals in Power: The Workers Party and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil.” London: Zed.

Baiocchi, G.; Heller, P.; Chaudhuri, S. and Kunrath Silva, M. (2006) “Evaluating Empowerment: Participatory Budgeting in Brazilian Municipalities”, in R. Alsop, M. Frost Bertelsen and J. Holland (eds), Empowerment in Practice: From Analysis to Implementation, Washington: World Bank

Bardhan, P. (2000) “Irrigation and Cooperation: An Empirical Analysis of 48 Irrigation Communities in South India.” Economic Development and Cultural Change, 48(4): 847–65.

Black, S., M. Lynch (2001) “How to Compete: The Impact of Workplace Practices and Information Technology on Productivity.” Review of Economics and Statistics, 83(3): 434–45.

Blore, I., Devas, N. and Staler (2004) “Municipalities and Finance: a sourcebook for Capacity Building.” Earthscan, London.

Brehm J, Rahn W. (1997) “Individual-level evidence for the causes and consequences of social capital.” American Journal of Political Science. Vol.41:999- 1023.

Cabannes, Y (2004) “Participatory budgeting: a significant contribution to participatory democracy”. Environment and Urbanization 16(1): 27-46

Dal Bó, P., A. Foster, and L. Putterman (2010) “Institutions and Behavior: Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Democracy” American Economic Review 100: 2205–2229

Ertan A., Talbot P., and L. Putterman (2009) “Who to Punish? Individual Decisions and Majority Rule in Mitigating the Free Rider Problem.” European Economic Review, 53(5): 495–511.

Feld, L. and Torgler, B. (2007) “Tax Morale After the Reunification of Germany: Results from a Quasi-Natural Experiment.” CESifo Working Paper No. 1921.

Feld, L.P., and B.S. Frey (2007) “Tax Compliance as the Result of a Psychological Tax Contract: The Role of Incentives and Responsive Regulation”, Law and Policy 29: 102–20.

Frieden, Jeffry (1991) “Debt, Development, and Democracy: Modern Political Economy and Latin America, 1965-1985.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frey, Bruno S., Matthias Benz, and Alois Stutzer (2004) “Introducing Procedural Utility: Not Only What, but Also How Matters.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 160(3): 377–401.

Frey, Bruno S., and Lars P. Feld (2002) “Deterrence and Morale in Taxation: An Empirical Analysis.” CESifo Working Paper no. 760, August 2002.

Gaventa, J. & Barret, G. (2010) “So what difference does it make? Mapping the outcomes of citizen engagement”. IDS Working Paper, 347, 1-74.

Goldfrank, Benjamin (2006) “Lessons from Latin American Experience in Participatory Budgeting.” Paper presented at the Latin American Studies Association Meeting. San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 2006.

Keele,L. (2007) “Social Capital and the Dynamics of Trust in Government”,American Journal of Political Science,Vol.51,No.2:241-257.

Navarro, Z. (2001) “Decentralization, Participation and Social Control of Public Resources: “Participatory Budgeting” In Porto Alegre (Brazil).” Development, 41(3), 68–71

Schneider, A. and B. Goldfrank. (2002) ‘Budgets and ballots in Brazil: participatory budgeting from the city to the state’, IDS Working Paper 149. Brighton: IDS.

Schneider, A. and M. Baquero (2006) “Get What You Want, Give What You Can: Embedded Public Finance in Porto Alegre.” Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Tampubolon, G. (2010) “Civic engagement and trust in Britain 2003-2004.” ISC Working Paper 2010-14, Manchester University.

Torgler, B. (2005) “Tax morale and Direct Democracy.” European Journal of Political Economy 21, pp. 525 – 531.

Torgler, B. and F. Schneider (2009) “The impact of tax morale and institutional quality on the shadow economy.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(2). pp. 228-245.

Varma, K. N., & Doob, A. N. (1998) “Deterring economic crimes: the case of tax evasion”. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 40, 165–184.

Wampler, B (2004) “Expanding Accountability Through Participatory Institutions: Mayors, Citizens, and Budgeting in Three Brazilian Municipalities,” Latin AmericanPolitics & Society, 46:2.

World Bank Report (2008). “Brazil: toward a more inclusive and effective participatory budget in Porto Alegre.” Report No. 40144-BR.

Zamboni, Yves. 2007. “Participatory Budgeting and Local Governance: An evidence based evaluation of participatory budgeting experiences in Brazil.” Working Paper, Bristol University.

‘Where’s my wife?’ Electronic SMS tracker notifies Saudi husbands


For the uncritical cheerleaders of the “mobile revolution”:

Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements.

Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are travelling together.
Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.

Read the full story here.

Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity

A new title in the series of Oxford Studies in Digital Politics (edited by Andrew Chadwick), has just been published: Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity, by Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and William W. Franko.

Digital Cities tells the story of information technology use and inequality in American metropolitan areas and discusses directions for change. The authors argue that mobile-only Internet, the form used by many minorities and urban poor, is a second-class form of access, as they offer evidence that users with such limited access have dramatically lower levels of online activity and skill. Digital citizenship and full participation in economic, social and political life requires home access. Using multilevel statistical models, the authors present new data ranking broadband access and use in the nation’s 50 largest cities and metropolitan areas, showing considerable variation across places. Unique, neighborhood data from Chicago examines the impact of poverty and segregation on access in a large and diverse city, and it parallels analysis of national patterns in urban, suburban and rural areas. Digital Cities demonstrate the significance of place for shaping our digital future and the need for policies that recognize the critical role of cities in addressing both social inequality and opportunity.

Find out more about it here.